The Role of the Old Testament Law in Galatians

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Tom Schreiner:

Communicating the role that the law played in God’s overall plan of salvation was one of the New Testament church’s biggest challenges. As Jews accepted that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, they struggled to understand how to bring their Jewish roots into this new reality.

The Christian who had come out of Judaism had to reconcile their understanding of what the law actually accomplished and how it worked. In their understanding, the law purified them and made them righteous. Was that true? If not, why were they given the law?

In his online course on Galatians, Thomas R. Schreiner explains Paul’s take on the law from Galatians 3:19–20. The following post is taken from Schreiner’s course.

Why was the law given?

“Then why was the law given? It was added on account of transgressions”Galatians 3:19a–b

If the law is not the primary covenant but is subordinate to the Abrahamic covenant, and if eschatological salvation is obtained through the promise of the Abrahamic covenant rather than observing the law of the Mosaic covenant, then why did God give the law? It was given, “added” by God (προσετέθη as a divine passive), “for the sake of transgressions,” which means that God gave the law to increase transgressions.

Hans Hübner argues that the subject of the passive verb is the angels referred to later in 3:19 and concludes that Paul assigns the giving of the law to evil angels. This view should be rejected for a number of reasons.

  1. The passive participle “having been ordained” (διαταγείς) should be construed as a divine passive, indicating that the law was ordained by God.
  2. The preposition “through” (διά) with the genitive indicates that the angels were a means through whom the law came, not ultimately responsible for the law.
  3. The reference to the angels is in a subordinate clause, and hence they do not function as the subject.
  4. In the clause that immediately follows the verb “promised” (ἐπήγγελται), God is clearly the implied subject.
  5. Nowhere else in Pauline theology is the law attributed to evil angels; it is considered to be a good gift of God (Rom 7:12).
  6. Such a view clearly contradicts what the OT says about the giving of the law, and Paul assigns divine authority to the OT.

What does Paul mean in saying that the law “was added on account of transgressions”? The word “for the sake of” (χάριν) follows the word “transgressions” (τῶν παραβάσεων) in Greek. That is because the word is postpositive, which means that it occurs after the word it modifies. So, it is translated first but the word it modifies appears first. The phrase is controversial since it is compact, and Paul does not elaborate on its significance. Four interpretations dominate:

  1. The law was given by God to restrain sin. According to this reading, the law taught Israel how to live before Christ came.
  2. The law’s purpose was to define sin. If this view is adopted, 3:19 is similar to Rom 4:15, which says, “Where there is no law, there is no transgression.” The law provides the standard, the measuring stick, by which sin is identified. The law classifies sin as sin in a technical or legal sense.
  3. The law was given to deal with sin. In other words, sacrifices were provided in the OT cultus to atone for sin before the coming of Christ.
  4. The law was given to increase sin. Despite the attractiveness of the other views, this seems to be the most likely interpretation.

The problem with the first view is the context of Galatians. An admission by Paul that the law was given to retrain sin would support the view of the Judaizers who argued that the Galatians must be circumcised and keep the law. Surely the opponents must have argued that the law’s restraining function was desperately needed among the Galatian Christians. Instead, Paul has already argued that the law curses those who are under its rule since no one can obey it (3:10).

Indeed, the law is unable to grant life, and all enclosed within its realm are under the power of sin (3:21–22). Furthermore, 4:5 speaks of those who were under law as redeemed or liberated from it, indicating that those who are under law are enslaved to sin. Hence, there is no reason to think that the law is envisioned as restraining sin here. As in Romans 5:20, the law was given to increase transgressions. Such a perspective fits with the history of Israel, for life under law did not lead to a law-abiding society. Instead, sin reigned in Israel, and as a result both the northern and southern kingdoms were sent into exile.

A more attractive solution is that the law was given to define sin, and it is possible that both the defining of sin and the expansion of sin are included. Still, it is difficult to see how the law defined sin only until Christ came. The idea that the law increased the reign of sin in Israel until the coming of the Christ, however, fits with the OT story of Israel’s life under the law. Furthermore, it was noted above that Paul links being “under law” (cf. 3:23) with being under the power of sin, and hence the upsurge of sin under the law is preferable. By showing that the law could not curb sin, God revealed that the only answer to the power of sin is the coming of the Messiah.

Finally, it is unlikely that Paul emphasizes here that the law provides atonement for sin. Instead, he emphasizes in Galatians that the law does not provide full and final forgiveness, for if forgiveness is truly secured through the law and its sacrifices, then Christ died for nothing (2:21).

The provisional role of the law

“Until the offspring should come for whom the promise was reserved”Galatians 3:19c

The law’s reign concluded with the coming of the “offspring” (i.e., Christ), and hence the fulfillment of the promise has been secured. N. T. Wright defines “offspring” (σπέρμα) here as “family,” but such a translation is difficult to sustain. Christ is the corporate head of the people of God, the only true offspring of Abraham, but that is not quite the same thing as saying that the referent is family rather than Christ.

The first purpose of the law was to multiply transgressions so that it would be evident that the law itself is not the answer to the sin problem. The second comment on the purpose of the law is articulated here: The law was never intended to be in force forever, for it is subordinate to what God had promised. Hence, when the promised offspring arrived, i.e., Jesus the Christ, the law’s jurisdiction ended. The law, then, was always intended as an interim arrangement.

What Paul says here is astonishing, for the typical view of Judaism was that the law would last forever. As Bar 4:1 says about wisdom in the Torah, “She is the book of the commandments of God, the law that endures forever” (NRSV; cf. Wis 18:4; Josephus, Ag. Ap. 2.277; Philo, Moses 2.14). We see again the characteristic salvation-historical teaching of Paul. The law, which preceded Christ’s coming, revealed the power and depth of human sin, and thus the greatness of the redemption accomplished in Christ Jesus is set in bold relief.

The subservient role of the law

“Having been ordained through angels by the hands of a mediator”Galatians 3:19d

The subordinate role of the law continues to be Paul’s theme, as is shown by its mediation from angels. By way of contrast, the promise was given directly to Abraham, and hence the covenant with Abraham receives priority.

To say that angels were the intermediaries for the reception of the law does not suggest that God was absent when the law was given or even that the angels were actually demonic. The participle “having been ordained” (διαταγείς) indicates as a passive participle that God is the one who determined that the law would be transmitted by angels.

The notion that angels were present when the law was given is unclear in the OT, but it may be present in Deut 33:2: “The Lord came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand” (ESV). A reference to angels is clearer in the LXX of this verse, which speaks of the “angels with him” (ἄγγελοι μετ̓ αὐτοῦ). Another text from which the same tradition may be derived is Ps 68:17. The notion that the law was mediated through angels may be found in Josephus (Ant. 15.136)[23] and in Philo (Dreams 1.140–44), and it seems clear in Pesiq. Rab. 21.8. Other Jewish traditions refer to a mediation through a single angel (Jub. 1:27; 2:1; 6:22; 30:11–12, 21; 50:6, 13). We find elsewhere in the NT the tradition of mediation through angels (Acts 7:53; Heb 2:2), and hence Paul does not innovate here.

The “mediator” (μεσίτου) in the verse is almost certainly Moses, for he functioned as the one who transmitted the law to Israel. The presence of a mediator suggests the inferiority of the revelation or the weakness of the people. The reference to Moses’ hands alludes to the Ten Commandments, which Moses brought down from the mountain with his own hands (cf. Exod 32:15, 19; 34:4, 29). So, Paul emphasizes that the law was given to Moses through angels, and Moses in turn mediated the law to the people.

The law is inferior to God’s promise

And a mediator is not for one party, but God is one”—Galatians 3:20

Here Paul contrasts the oneness of God with a mediator (Moses), who stands between two parties (God and the people). The covenant made with Abraham is superior because it is given directly by God in contrast to the mediation between parties that we find in the Mosaic covenant. The genitive “for one” (ἑνός) could also be translated “of one.” The difference in meaning between the two expressions is negligible. A mediator is not just “for” or “of” one party. Here Paul reflects on the occasion when Moses mediates between God and the people at Sinai, and he sees the covenant with Abraham as superior since God enacted his covenant directly with Abraham.

The brevity of this verse has puzzled interpreters throughout history. Joseph Barber Lightfoot says there are 250 to 300 interpretations. Albrecht Oepke, drawing on the 430 years of 3:17, mentions 430 different ways of construing the verse. The article with “mediator” (ὁ μεσίτης) may be generic But it could also be construed as anaphoric, referring back to the mediator of 3:19, who is Moses. Terrance Callan maintains that the mediation here is not general but refers to the mediation of Moses. The idea, then, may be that Moses mediated for the angels, which were a plurality. Callan restricts the mediation to angels since Paul refers to the role of angels and not to human beings.

Still, it is likely that Paul has in mind particularly the conveyance of the law to Israel. We see in the previous verse that the law was given to Israel through the hands of Moses. Hence, the mediatorial role of Moses cannot be restricted to his interaction with angels but should also include his giving of the law to Israel.

Wright suggests that the word “one” here points to one family. The Torah did not produce one unified human family since Moses mediated only for Israel. Therefore, the Mosaic covenant separated Israel from the nations, but God’s intention was, through Abraham, to bring about one united family. The interpretation is intriguing, but reading the notion of family into the word “one” lacks clear contextual support. If Paul had wanted to make this point, he could have added the word “people” or “nation” to “one.”

Lightfoot’s interpretation is preferable. A mediator involves at least two parties, and in this context the distance between God and Israel is stressed. Such a view fits with the giving of the law in Exodus, where Moses received the law on the mountain alone and brought it down to Israel (cf. Exod 19–34). Mediation also implies a contract between God and Israel. Therefore, the promises of the covenant were dependent on both parties fulfilling their responsibilities. The Sinai covenant failed because Israel did not do what was demanded and broke the stipulations of the covenant. The promise given to Abraham, by contrast, is dependent on God alone. And since it depends on his promise and is not contingent, it will certainly be fulfilled.

The main idea of the verse seems clear in context. On the one hand, the law is inferior to the promise because it required mediation: from God to angels to Moses to the people. On the other hand, the one God spoke directly to Abraham. Hence, the promise is clearly superior to the law. The indirect way that the law came to Israel suggests that it should not be placed on the same plane as the promise.

Paul also appeals to the oneness of God in Rom 3:30 to underscore that there is one way of salvation. It is intriguing that both in Romans and here in Galatians the oneness of God is introduced where Paul defends the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God apart from the law. Since there is one God, there is one way of salvation. Inasmuch as the law did not and could not accomplish salvation, it is inferior to the promise.

The law does not transform hearts

For contemporaries of Paul, it would have been astonishing to suggest that the law, instead of restraining sin, provoked and exacerbated it.

The typical Jewish view was that the Torah was an agent for moral transformation. Hence, the popular saying, “the more study of the Law the more life” (m. ‘Abot 2:7). The notion that the Torah led to life was common in Judaism (Sir 17:11; Bar 3:9; 4:1; Pseudo-Philo, Bib. Ant. 23:10; Pss. Sol. 14:2–3). Certainly Paul must have concurred with such a view before his conversion. As a Christian, however, he was persuaded that the law actually incited human beings to sin, and indeed sin became even more insidious after the onset of the law since it was now colored by rebellion.

Most secular people, and even many religious people, believe that moral education is the pathway to humane living. If we can only succeed in teaching “morals,” justice and truth will prevail. The Pauline view of the law and the goodness of human beings is much less optimistic.

The law is not the solution but part of the problem. It does not follow, of course, that we shouldn’t teach moral principles. Still, any hope that morality is the answer flies in the face of the Pauline gospel. We will not curb the problem with sexual sin by making rules about sexual harassment. Many institutions and places of work have long handbooks on what is permitted and disallowed. Such rules are not necessarily bad, but Paul reminds us that they do not touch the human heart. Human beings may obey laws because they want to avoid getting in trouble, but the law itself grants no power to obey. Only the gospel truly transforms our hearts.

This post is adapted from Thomas Schreiner’s Galatians online course. To learn more about Paul’s understanding of the law, sign up for the course today.

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I am currently serving churches and colleges as a bible teacher, overseas and in the UK.